Monday, January 11, 2016

Being vegetarian and vegan in Ukraine

When Yulia and I first moved to Ukraine, we were ovo-lacto vegetarians. We ate this way for our first few months here and then slowly began to cut out dairy and eggs from our diet. In this post I want to discuss the ease--and lack of ease--we've had while being vegetarian and vegan in Ukraine.

When we first got here in 2011, we lived with Yulia's grandparents for a few months. They had a cow at the time and had milk three times a day. I had never tried raw milk from a pastured cow before, and I have to say that the difference is stark between that and store bought milk. Milk from a pastured cow in the summer is fragrant and sweet. It has a rich, dynamic flavor that changes with the seasons. Store bought milk, on the other hand, has a flat taste to it, which makes sense. That kind of milk comes from hundreds of different cows who were fed a steady diet of animal feed. It has also been cooked, destroying many of the nutrients that raw milk has.

The eggs were also good, but for some reason my memory of eating eggs is less vivid. The yolks were much richer in color for sure, though I can't describe the taste in any level of detail. Yulia's grandparents treat their chickens much better than the operators of agribusinesses treat their chickens, so we're alright with that--we just wish the chickens weren't killed. For that reason alone we can't bring ourselves to continue eating their eggs. It would be like us getting a pet puppy to play with and then killing it once it became too big and no longer of "use" to us.

That first winter I remember reading The China Study while still living with Yulia's grandparents. I remember sitting on their couch during the long nights, pouring over the information for the first time. "Hey, did you know that the countries with the highest milk consumption are also the countries with the highest levels of osteoporosis?" I'd ask Yulia. Study after study in that book confirms that eating animal products is not good for your health.

We then began to slowly transition to a purely plant based diet. What was most interesting about our transition was that we actually began to eat more of a variety of foods than ever before. Whereas I used to primarily eat only meat, dairy, eggs, wheat, corn, soy, and sugar in all their processed forms, after switching to a whole foods, plant based diet, I began to seek out the many, many foods that are actually available out there.

Ukrainian bazaars are full of lots of interesting foods. It's relatively easy to go out and find walnuts or hazelnuts. There are local fruits available pretty much year round, and the imported foods are also easily accessible. In the fall and winter Yulia and I indulge in persimmons grown in Spain, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. In a weird way, by eating from fewer of the food groups, we discovered the endless variety of plant foods for the first time. Don't take our word for it, Give it a try sometime! You'll find that you'll get bored with eating the same few foods over and over again if you simply continue eating what you've been eating minus animal products.

Want something hardy? That's how I discovered fava beans for the first time--easy to grow and delicious! I never ate plain fava beans as a meat eater. Want something sweet, but can't rely on the milk, eggs, flour, and sugar in baked goods anymore? There are LOTS and LOTS of great fruits out there waiting to be discovered. Yulia just made a wonderful jam from sloe she collected in the hedgerows near our village. She has also perfected really great apple and pumpkin pie recipes. What about something creamy?? Surely there are no plant foods that can substitute for dairy products. ...Actually, Yulia was craving a creamy sauce the other day when we made вареники (pierogies). She took some hemp seeds, blended them with water and then fried some onions and garlic with the "hemp milk" to make a savory sauce. It was a big hit, and we've been eating it all week!

Yulia and I have found that Ukraine is actually a great place to be vegan. Fresh produce is easy to get here, and, because of our location in the middle of Europe, we get imported foods from Europe, Africa, and Asia. If you're willing to pay American prices, there are also California pomegranates at the supermarket, and bananas cost about as much as they do in the US.

We don't go out to eat as frequently as other people we know, but the few vegetarian restaurants there are in Ukraine are pretty great. Our favorites are Green in L'viv and Nebos in Kyiv. We dedicated a whole blog post to Green when it opened, so I'll link to it here. In a nutshell, it serves really good, high quality vegetarian food and has a menu that changes with the seasons. The items on the menu are marked as either vegetarian, vegan, or raw, so it's easy to find what you're looking for. It's been our favorite place to go to in Lviv since we moved here.

Nebos is a raw foods restaurant in Kyiv. The chefs there know what they are doing because they have some really great creations on their menu.

Dessert at Nebos
The atmosphere there is really relaxed too. They had a film projector playing video from a coral reef, tasteful music, and some really creative artwork on the walls. Very inspiring! Go there!

For the amount of meat and animal products that average Ukrainians eat, the locals have been surprisingly non-confrontational whenever Yulia and I say we are vegetarian--even our neighbors who all raise their own livestock. Most of the time they'll just say something like, "Really? Well, you guys look great! Good for you!"

It's a little harder for us to sit down with family or go over to a neighbor's house because nearly every food they serve usually has animal products in it. If we get asked why we're not eating anything we let them know that we don't eat any animal products. We try and keep it positive saying we came over to see and talk with them, not to eat their food.

Unfortunately, we have to be really firm in our refusal to eat anything that we suspect may have animal products in it. Once or twice I've accepted dumplings or "vegetable soup" that I thought were vegan, but turned out not to be. I can tell right away if something has meat in it and have had to spit food out on one or two occasions. The taste of meat in my mouth revolts me. I don't consider muscle, bone or organs from a chicken to be any different than the liver from my cat or a broth made from the bones of my dog. It's doesn't reassure me that chickens and pigs are a different species. The concept of eating any of those things is still disgusting to me. To the person serving the food, it's a shame that I end up not eating the food, so it's socially awkward and unpleasant all around. In short, we've become very picky in what we accept from other people for good reason.

With regard to the preference of eating meat from happy animals who live in the fresh air of the idyllic countryside, our experience of living with homesteaders from the old world has taught us that the animals are not necessarily treated any better. It's easy to romanticize a traditional culture from a poorer country. People like this live on less money with fewer material goods than people in wealthy, Western countries. They are more self sufficient and have not lost the wisdom from generations past. This is true for many of our neighbors. It is normal to plow fields with horses and store food in root cellars. They live on a fraction of the money that people in wealthy countries live on and are much more self sufficient than modern Westerners. These are all admirable qualities.

But are the animals treated any better than those from feed lots and poultry houses? I've already described how pigs are slaughtered around here: a knife is shoved into their hearts. The pigs don't die instantly, but wail--loudly--in agony for a long time.

What about the milk cows? They are not killed, and live happily in grass filled pastures, right? First of all, they are killed once they stop producing a lot of milk. Secondly, cows don't just naturally produce milk all the time. Like humans, they must have a baby. The milk that a cow produces is meant for its calf. In order to get milk from a cow then, the calf is usually butchered or sold for meat and then butchered by other people. If the calf is female it might be raised to be a dairy cow as an adult, and the cycle continues.

What about shepherds tending a flock in the pasture? It must be a relaxing, stress-free job, sitting out there in the fresh air, watching the cows slowly graze on grass all day, right? In Ukrainian villages, people only keep one or two cows at home. During the day, they go out to pasture, and the villagers take turns tending the flock. These cows surely must be well taken care of in a neighborly way, right? Not at all. Yulia and I were driving through the pasture in our neighboring village one time and saw that some cows crossed the road and started grazing on the wrong side. We laughed at their innocent mistake. Then, to our horror, we saw a man bolt out in front of us as fast as he could and wail on the cows with a large tree branch. He repeatedly hit them like a baseball player swinging a bat. He hit one cow so hard that the branch broke in half. And he did all of this knowing well that we could see him. No care and no shame.

Yulia and I prefer to use the aspects of traditional culture that make sense to us. We'll take the root cellars. We learned how to build with straw, clay, and sand to make natural plaster. We'll reject the violence to animals. We don't care how traditional those things are. Like slavery and burning people at the stake, we think violence to animals is a tradition worth abandoning.

So after moving to Ukraine we've found that it's easier to be vegan and vegetarian in some respects and harder in others. For us the big pluses are easily accessible and cheap whole foods. The negatives are that we live in a culture of meat eating and animal abuse. As future oriented people, Yulia and I consciously want to keep the good traditions alive and let the bad ones fizzle out and die. We want to live in a Ukraine that we are proud of, and we want it to be a place that other people look to and want to emulate.


  1. Thanks for sharing this post! I can't wait to try Nebo's in Kyiv. I will let you know how it is doing!

  2. I don't know about you. As I have lived in Ukraine 16 years, I must say that it is a very risky step. You know, this country is not so perfect as USA. However, I believe in your successful life. Because, there are more important things like family or strong friendship.

    1. We don't know if we'd go so far as to call the USA perfect, but we usually think of it in terms of pluses and minuses. Ukraine has pluses and minuses, and the US has pluses and minuses.

      Yes, we agree: friends and family are very important! :)